Mira and I are sucked into the portal, and come out the other end of a tree trunk crashing into cold mud. My knees scrape against jagged stones hidden underneath the slush. Fortunately, the wounds heal up in a matter of seconds, leaving the skin without blemishes.
“Haa, hoo. I’ll take a horse next time.” Mira remarks as she brushes the dirt from her robes.
“I don’t see them?”
The moment we attempt to hijack our familiar’s sight, a sharp pain pricks at our brain, severing the connection before we can see anything.
I reel back clutching my head in pain, meanwhile Mira is less fazed by it. She winces in pain, but doesn’t flinch as she continues to try and link up with Talos.
“No doubt about it. There’s some sort of anti-magic in place here. It’s causing a feedback response everytime we draw magic.” Mira concludes, shaking her head.
“Is it Eudora’s doing?” I ask.
“Hmm. Somehow, I suspect not.”
We seem to have landed in a swamp with no discernible landmarks to guide us to Shallowglade.
The portal has since closed once it spat us out. I place a hand on the tree we came out of and think of the name Flora gave me. Esmerelda.
A very subtle weight lands on my shoulder. I glance over thinking it’s Rio only to be met with a tiny human waving back at me. Or rather, a being of fae origins— a fairy.
“Hi, hi, hi! You have called Esmerelda, and Esmerelda has come!”
A fairy no larger than the size of my hand grins at me. She wears nothing but a smile, with short green hair that obscures her eyes. At a glance she would appear human were it not for her size, and the vibrant butterfly-like wings idling on her back.
“This is flora’s sister? I was expecting another bodacious piece of bark.” Mira leans in, admiring the tiny fairy.
Unlike dryads, fairies are mischievous creatures that embody the worst aspects of their chaotic fae origins. One of Esmerelda’s potential could wreak famines if riled up, but just as easily grant boons left and right if catered to.
“Esmerelda? I’m Ellori, and this is Mira. We came here through Flora’s great tree—”
“I know, I know!” She zooms off, leaving a trail of dust or pollen that quickly disperses. She lands on my hat and peeks down from the brim. “You bear her mark, so I know. Teehee!”
“We need your help.” I plead. “We’re looking for an orc and human settlement called Shallowglade. Can you take us there?”
“Could I? Could I? I could, but you— uuggnnyaa—?!”
Mira snatches the fairy and brings it up to her face.
“How annoying. Take us where we need to go or resign yourself to becoming pixie dust.”
I pry open her fingers to release Esmerelda. The fairy flutters behind me and sticks her tongue out at Mira.
“I know how the fae go about their dealings. She wants something in return for her help. We have nothing to give, and neither do we have the time to humor a request.” Mira says impatiently.
“Such a greedy witch! One-sided relationships will always be one-sided relationships.” Esmerelda asserts confidently from the safety of my back.
“We should at least hear her out.” I offer.
The fairy pats my shoulder, it’s so light I don’t even feel it. “This one gets it! I just want to get rid of those pesky literal bird-brained idiots. Recently a swarm of harpies have begun feasting on mine and my sisters’ orchards.”
“See? We’re not some wandering adventurers out to solve everyone’s problem. If we did, Eudora will have completed her perverse goal while we’re delivering flour to an old lady in Grathir.” Mira says indignantly.
Esmerelda flitters with her hands on her hips between me and Mira. Her wings flap with the same intensity as hummingbirds, but are overflowing with energy.
“You’ll find our desires are more aligned than you think. More than you think! I can see Shallowglade, it’s not just manticores. Harpies, wyverns, and creatures I’ve never seen before all want a piece of that pie.”
“Esmerelda, please. We’ll take care of your problem as soon as we help Shallowglade. I promise.”
“I like you.” The fairy says to me, “You look and sound like you can keep a promise. Mhmm! Not the frowny one. I shall take you to where you need to go. Then you help me!”
Mira expels a heavy sigh and resigns to my decision.
We follow Esmerelda while keeping a lookout for our familiars and Gurk. Apparently the fairy wasn’t around when they emerged from the portal, but suspected that they may have taken off in the direction of an explosion towards the southeast.
So,” Mira begins, breaking the silence as we slosh through the muck of the swamp. “Might our illustrious guide know why we cannot invoke magic here?”
Esmerelda proudly puts a fist to her chest. “My fellow sisters and I did! Do not be mistaken, we aren’t doing this out of spite for you. There are others like you who would seek to do us harm, so this anti-magic zone is our defense against them.”
“You mean Eudora and her covenant?” I ask.
“You and her aren’t the only ones. Not even the first! Many, many, many, many years ago a group of witches came here. They even built a mining settlement bigger than Shallowglade.”
“Mining…? I’ve never heard of the Witch’s Academy making any major excursions into the Weeping Expanse.” Mira glances at me with a suspicious look.
“How long ago? Are they still around?” I inquire further.
“Nope. One day, they just vanished. They really did! I know where it is if you want to visit.”
“We should check it out after Shallowglade.” I whisper to Mira.
Unfortunately, my words are lost on her as she is deep in thought.
“What’s wrong?” I tug on her arm.
Mira blinks rapidly coming back to her senses, a lot more perturbed than before.
“After Eudora slaughtered the Empire of Saquin, the Council of Kings immediately ordered the establishing of a branch academy in High Saquin.” Mira pauses, searches her memories, and then glances sideways. “After I took care of Randover’s civil war, the construction of another branch academy began immediately.”
Mira draws coincidental connections that I don’t quite catch onto.
“What does that have to do with the settlement that vanished here?”
“Eudora told you Anora masterminded Saquin’s fall and framed her as the scapegoat. Eudora escaped persecution and somehow knew to come here, where our Headmaster became desperate enough to break a covenant tenet in sending a second witch.”
“Wait, what? No, the Headmaster said she received permission to send you.”
“No, she did not. Anora asked me to come personally, and to tell no one.”
The revelation chills the blood in my veins. I’m speechless. Both Headmaster and Mira would be put to death if the Council of Kings found out. And my head would likely join them on a stake as well.
The more Mira dwelled on this, the more her face began to wrinkle up. One thing is for sure that we can both agree on— there’s a secret hidden in this forest Headmaster Anora is afraid of Eudora digging up. That settlement from the past may be the key.
“What is… Headmaster Anora hiding… and what is Eudora trying to find?”
Mira continues to mutter these questions like a mantra until we come across a number of boulders in the swamp. However, upon closer inspection, we notice the blood pooling around each of them.
Dozens of orc bodies litter the swamp, mangled and torn to shreds by whatever they came across.
Mira inspects the corpses, performing an impromptu autopsy on them. She flips them over, draws her fingers across the wounds, and even reaches into the chest cavities of bodies with gaping lacerations.
“Manticores.” She whispers.
“Why are they so far from the settlement?” I ponder aloud.
“This way! This!”
Esmerelda leads us up a ridge overlooking the swamp. A ways off the other side, we see Shallowglade’s walls currently under siege by a number of manticores.
Coming up the ridge, dragging an orc in its jaws, a manticore growls quietly at our presence.
“Dispel the anti-magic zone!” Mira exclaims.
“Can’t. If it’s gone, we’ll be in even more danger!” Esmerelda says, trembling behind me.
Mira curses under her breath and grips her staff tightly. “A good old fashioned beat down it is.”
“We can’t fight that without magic. We should make a run for it.” I suggest, but Mira shakes her head.
“The moment we run is when it knows to pounce.”
Mira discards her staff and pulls out two daggers from her waist.
“You’re crazy if you think you can fight that with kitchen knives! I can survive after drinking an elixir of panacea. Let me distract it, and you can get help from Shallowglade.”
“And let it make a chew toy out of you? No chance. You go, darling. I’ve fought worse than this.”
My body takes off running towards Shallowglade without turning back. I hear a sudden shift of movement behind me, and presumably the sudden drop of the orc’s corpse. The last sound I make out by the time I’m out of earshot is the clattering of glass.